South Africa’s President Thabo Mbeki said on Tuesday the country could not fight AIDS with drugs alone as it prepared to launch the world’s biggest medical program for tackling the pandemic.
South Africa’s President Thabo Mbeki said on Tuesday the country could not fight AIDS with drugs alone as it prepared to launch the world’s biggest medical program for tackling the pandemic.After years of pressure, the government will begin providing life-saving anti-retroviral ARV medication on Thursday at five pilot hospitals in Gauteng, South Africa’s richest province.But Mbeki warned: “Anti-retroviral drugs do not destroy HIV. They do not. It’s equally irresponsible to put out a notion that anti-retroviral drugs cure AIDS.”You need to engage in a totality of measures to make sure that you better manage the health of people,” he said in remarks on South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) radio.He did not elaborate on what other measures were needed.South Africa has the world’s highest HIV/AIDS caseload with some 5.3 million of its 45 million people infected. Around 600 people die each day, according to activists.Mbeki has been mired in controversy for his views on the cause of AIDS and the efficacy of anti-retrovirals, which he once described as toxic.Activists say his views were partly to blame for the government’s slowness in launching a publicly-funded national treatment program.The government decided to drop its opposition to ARV drugs last year.Western Cape province around Cape Town began its own treatment program earlier in the year.Other provinces are expected to follow suit in coming weeks as the government tenders with pharmaceutical companies for huge supplies of the drugs.Nationally, officials say 50,000 South Africans could be on ARVs by the end of the year, rising to as many as 1.4 million by 2009 at a total cost of some 4.4 billion rand ($700 million).ELECTION GIMMICKBut opposition leaders have accused Mbeki’s government of using the roll-out to win votes ahead of the April 14 general election.”We are entitled to ask: what took you so long?” opposition Democratic Alliance leader Tony Leon said at one campaign rally. “We are entitled to ask: why do it 14 days before an election?”Mbeki’s ruling African National Congress (ANC), which is expected to score a solid victory in the April polls, has dismissed the accusations as an opposition attempt to “scavenge votes” from a frightened electorate.AIDS activists, who pushed the government to provide ARVs, have hailed the program in Gauteng which includes Johannesburg.But they fear Mbeki’s government is still not committed to the drugs, which officials have in the past labeled expensive, dangerous and difficult to administer.”All we can do is read the signals, and unfortunately the signals still cast suspicion on the commitment of the (health) minister and the president,” said Mark Heywood of the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), an influential AIDS activist group.Neither Mbeki nor Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang are expected to take part in Thursday’s drug launch, provincial officials say.(Source: Reuters Health, March 2004)